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The Family Who Saved the Pacific Northwest Oyster Industry

Rampant overharvesting and pollution decimated the Olympia oyster population until one family finally found a solution.

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© Patrick Yamashita

Everything started when Masahide Yamashita arrived in Seattle in 1902.

At 19-years-old, Masahide tried his hand at various import-export endeavors ranging from lumber to pearls. But as the relationship between Japan and America waxed and waned, so did his business prospects. Yet he persevered.

Parallel to Masahide’s struggle, the Pacific Northwest oyster industry was in dire straits. Overharvesting and pollution were causing significant die-offs in the region, plummeting oyster population numbers. Shellfish growers floated the idea of importing baby oysters from Japan, but mortality rates were high due to the stress of transportation.

Luckily, Masahide had accumulated experience from his other business ventures and he was able to formulate an efficient shipping method that preserved the baby oysters during their long journey from Japan.

Today, 98% of all oysters sold in Washington are Pacific Oysters (formerly “Japanese Oysters”)

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© Patrick Yamashita

Without Masahide, the Pacific Northwest Oyster industry would never have survived.

Not long after Masahide had settled into the booming oyster business, World War II broke out. Anti-Japanese sentiment rose with startling intensity, fueled by the underlying fear of the “Yellow Peril.”

“Before evacuation, a man came down the hill to our tidelands,” Eiichi, Masahide’s son, tells me, “I was only around 17 or so just before the war broke out. I told him he couldn’t go out there and take our oysters. But the man said, ‘well, you’re not going to be here long anyway.’”

In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing nearly 110,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to leave behind their businesses, possessions and homes. Ushered into euphemistically-named “relocation centers,” they found themselves in new and unfamiliar territory, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

Masahide was taken to Fort Missoula in Montana, while the rest of the family, including young Eiichi, was sent to Tule Lake in California. They were incarcerated for three and a half years before finally being reunited.

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© Patrick Yamashita

“It was hard,” Eiichi tells me, “Readjusting was hard. But the fortunate thing was that when we came back, the oysters were waiting for us. It was fortunate for us that we had enough oysters to get us started. It saved us.”

“So many people lost everything when they had to go to the camps,” Patrick adds, “They could only have two suitcases or something like that. And many people had businesses that they just had to close up…They lost all of that. They had to start over all over again.”

The interplay between struggle and hard work is a constant theme in the Yamashita story. Since stepping out into the tidelands at age thirteen, Eiichi has been a life-long oyster farmer and a tireless water quality champion after experiencing frequent tideland closures due to pollution.

The first closure happened when Patrick was a junior in high school. Perplexed, he watched his dad continue to work and relay the oysters from the polluted water to clean water, increasing his handling costs and losing his profit margin. He couldn’t understand why his dad would go to such great lengths to continue his work.

“But I know better now,” he says, smiling. “It’s evidence of how Dad perseveres in spite of adversity. I think seeing him and mom struggle through that for years and years really taught us kids something about life and working hard…When you look at immigrant stories in the U.S., there are common themes like working hard for the sake of the whole family. That’s something that kind of evolves as the generations go on.”

Yet despite the hardship and the struggle and the suffering, Eiichi retains an incredible propensity for compassion.

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© Patrick Yamashita
“My dad works so hard and throughout much of his life he really struggled financially because of water quality issues,” says Patrick. “Yet, whatever he had, he would share with other people, especially his own knowledge. There are young people just starting out as oyster farmers that turn to Dad for guidance. That’s another lesson I’ve learned—not just thinking about yourself but helping people to grow.”

Eiichi is such a pillar in the shellfish community that last year Leaping Frog Films made a documentary about his life, entitled Ebb & Flow. It’s a testament to the resiliency of families like the Yamashitas and a potent example of how the values and legacies we pass down bind the generations through time.

The film, which touches on themes of family, the internment, the environment and the origin of the Pacific Oyster, has a message for every viewer. For Eiichi and Patrick, the film is an opportunity to promote understanding across diverse communities.

“I think one thing that I hope that people take from the documentary is that a lot of people in America would say [internment] could never happen again—We know better now. But I’m not so sure,” warns Patrick.

“It really does scare me at times because people do tend to have their own biases. As do I,” he admits. “We usually don’t realize that these biases can pass on to our future generations. But we really need to be mindful that those things can happen again unless we all stand up for everybody.”

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© Patrick Yamashita

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